Making It Clear

| by Priscilla Bratcher

I loved school.  Did you?  I was lucky enough to be raised in a home where intellectual curiosity was highly valued and books were plentiful, so learning new things was exciting to me.  Although not a professional instructor, when I gained adulthood I took on modest teaching assignments from time to time:  Brownie Scouts, Sunday school, professional meetings and associations. Along the way, one of the things I discovered about relating to “learners” is that clarifying expectations is a key imperative of effective teaching. An Students want to know what they are supposed to do:  what homework is required, when are the quizzes, how long is the term paper supposed to be, what will be covered on the final exam?  Not knowing produces more anxiety than knowing.

In the world of nonprofits, we staff members are highly dependent upon our boards. They hold the potential to make connections we cannot make, find funding that might elude us, spread the word of our good deeds to people we don’t know and with a level of authority we as paid staff don’t have, and set our direction and guide us toward possibilities we may not be able to see because we are consumed with the day to day management of our organizations.

Given all that board members can do for us, there are many things we can and should do for them. The most fundamental, in my view, is to clarify expectations at every point in the identification, selection, recruitment, appointment and support of our board members.

I have just completed a very rewarding project with a client organization that has come out of a very difficult financial period.  Now, with a committed board chair and new executive director, it is positioned for a meaningful and impactful future. But some of the board members who “rescued” the organization were exhausted and dispirited. As a result we began a conversation about board performance and expectations.  A Board Development Committee was created and two documents drafted.  The first is a new board member recruitment document summarizing the organization’s expectations and the second is a more thorough “job description” for board members.  The documents have inspired productive and healthy discussion and the process continues.

I’m sure you can guess which part of the documents garnered the most discussion. Got it in one:  fundraising! The “giving and getting” section has sparked a genuine and honest discussion of what should be expected.  Interestingly, those who want to modify the proposed documents don’t seem to feel that the fundraising expectation should be eliminated; they are only concerned with what is an appropriate level of personal giving and what counts.  As some of these exhausted members move from a “rescue” mode into governance, they understand that expectations are changing.  New board members will not have to make a transition like this; they will see, both in oral and written form, exactly what is expected of their leadership.

I am such a big believer in written job descriptions for board members and real clarity about their important role in the financial success of the organization.  In my humble view, they all need to give and “in-kind”, although tremendously helpful, doesn’t count.  Making even a token personal contribution fundamentally changes a board (or staff, for that matter) member’s relationship to the organization. Asking others to “join me in supporting my favorite nonprofit” cements the relationship in a powerful way. Making the importance of these fundamental expectations clear us up to us.

As we lead our organizations we also need to teach good governance to our board members.  So grab your chalk and eraser and draw up your lesson plan. Putting expectations in writing isn’t the toughest thing you’ll do today and it will, at a minimum, start a good conversation.  Any questions or comments, class?

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